Long-term science communication is a ‘damn good investment’ – but how do you make it happen?

Distinguished Professor Arnan Mitchell is an accomplished researcher who – in the words of grant assessors – started out as being ‘unheard of’, to someone with an ‘international reputation’, now leading an Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence, the highest amount of funding awarded by the ARC.

In a webinar in September 2023, Arnan discussed the importance of science communication in establishing reputation, demonstrating a track record, and how they can lead to securing successful grants.

We sat down with Arnan, and science communicator Rachael Vorwerk, to ask some follow-up questions about why science communication is such a ‘damn good investment’ (in Arnan’s words!).

“A damn good investment”: the power of long-term strategic science communication
  • Arnan, how do you fund science communication on a budget?

Most universities invest in science communicators centrally – at their research office, and sometimes at the school and faculty level.  My suggestion would be to find out who these people are and have a discussion with them about what they are looking for and how best to engage with them.  If you have a little bit of money (or you can convince your university to invest in this), the next thing to do is to try to get some professional pictures – both of you and your team in the lab or out in the field doing research and some interesting and engaging pictures of your research. Engaging pictures will make people want to read about your work and can be a great way to get attention. Do this regularly so that you build up a library of great images. Probably the next step up is to engage a science communicator as part of your team. Maybe you could fund a day a week for someone from the central team? Or share a science communicator with a collaborative centre? (hint: most ARC Centres of Excellence have a budget for a science communicator, if there is a relevant centre in your institution, maybe have a discussion with them about whether you could share the cost of a science communicator?).

  • Rachael, do you meet regularly with your team of academics to plan your media schedule?

In a team of about 40 researchers, there are two ways I keep up to date with them. The first is through weekly scheduled meetings with my Director, Arnan, where he reports on whether there are any newsworthy events coming up from the team. The second way is our fortnightly team meetings – where we have a schedule of update presentations and achievements, and I can get a sense of any interesting news stories coming up.

One benefit of being embedded within the research team is that I feel very ‘on the pulse’ with news, and over the three years as I’ve been working with the researchers, more and more team members have been coming up to me at the end of team meetings, telling me about updates with their research – this is a major shift compared to when I was chasing the team for stories in the beginning! There’s something to be said for being present in the team and attending these team meetings, I’ve found that trust only grows over time.

  • Rachael, do you ever have periods of ‘no news’ and what do you do in these moments to keep the momentum going?

I always try to find news – and have a few mechanisms to do so (as mentioned above). However, being the science communication for a small research team means that the definition of ‘news’ changes slightly.

I have the luxury of working on researchers’ stories that aren’t always ‘newsworthy’, or suitable for a media release. With these stories, I like to work with the researcher to find other strategic channels for their news – it might be through a case study on our Centre website that can be sent to an industry partner, or a LinkedIn post from the researcher themselves which helps them to build their online profile, or perhaps even something that turns into a Three Minute Thesis that helps the student to solidify their research elevator pitch.

By having my weekly meetings with Arnan and attending the fortnightly team meetings, I find that there is always news flowing in!

  • Arnan, who should pay for science communication and how do you convince them?

Good question! The only explicit funding source I have been able to find to support science communication over the long term is the ARC Centre of Excellence scheme. Often short-term programs will have some funds to support promotion, but this is usually a single event (like a launch). My view is that science communication is investment in reaching your stakeholders including industry end-users, and so if you are able to do industrial work (like we have been), then maybe try to build an overhead into this industrial work to support your team (including a science communicator?). I am currently working with my university to make funding for a long term embedded science communication as part of the funding that the university would provide to research centres.

  • Arnan, at what point in the research cycle should you think about science communication?

I would say from the very beginning. I am very outcome oriented – so I like to try to imagine the outcome that I want to achieve. What story would I like to be telling and to who? What would I like them to do in response to this story?  This then becomes the end point in a plan to do the research to be able to tell that story most effectively. What images would be best to include here?

So, in short, I believe we should try to imagine the story we want to tell and the science we want to communicate right from the very beginning.

  • Rachael: What are the differences between a role in a central media team at university, compared with being embedded within a research team as a science communicator?

One of the main differences I have found between the two roles is that in a central media team (from my experience in the media team at CSIRO), you jump in and out of a researchers’ life, depending on when they have a journal article coming out. However, being embedded within a research team means that you are with the researchers’ through thick and thin – you know when they’ve put in a grant application because you probably helped them with it, then you know when they didn’t succeed, you know when they try again, and then you know when they finally succeed. It’s this long-term relationship building and deep trust that is so satisfying in being embedded within the research team itself.

The other main difference is that it can get quite lonely being the only non-academic in a team of academics. Contrast this with a media team, and you have other communications-minded people around you that you can brainstorm with, who are completely on the same wavelength as you, they get it. This is the biggest disadvantage I’ve felt in the embedded model, however it just means you need to pro-actively reach out to other like-minded people and attend things like the Australian Science Communicators Conference!

  • Lastly, Arnan, you say science communication is a damn good investment, show me the money!

It is very hard to draw a direct link between the investment we have made in science communication and the increase in value of our research (both income and impact) – it is hard to isolate the specific ‘cause and effect’. The number and scale of research projects that we have been successful in winning has certainly increased over the years while we have been pursuing this strategy – so there is definitely a correlation – is it cause and effect?

Recall our hypothesis: if assessors or decision makers already knew what we were doing and had a positive view of it, then we were more likely to be successful in the decisions that these people would make. I can identify a few specific examples where this is clearly working. There have been several times where I have been introduced to people at conferences and the people (who I have not yet met) that say they already know me because they are following what I am doing on LinkedIn or other online media – this clearly shows that the first part of our hypothesis is working. Several of these people have spontaneously asked whether I was planning on submitting a Laureate Fellowship and following up with encouragement that they thought I would be very well suited for this (including one person who was on the ARC college of experts). This indicates that the sort of people who might be making these sorts of decisions already felt like they knew who I was and were feeling positive about that. 

There have been a couple of instances where we have deliberately been talking about some unusual applications of photonics (for example visible wavelength photonics) in our media stories – fishing to see if people are interested. In one case, this resulted in a company engaging us to do a project on integrated photonics and this funded us to turn what we thought was possible into a reality. This is an example of the science communication about what we thought was possible, then leading to engagement with end users to turn that possibility into a reality (flipping the traditional model of doing the research first, then communicating what you have done). 

I have also been invited to give higher profile talks – e.g. plenaries at major international conferences (such as SPIE Photonics West in 2023) – sometimes I feel like ‘who the hell do I think I am?!’ but then I think about this as science communication leading the research agenda.

Thank you to Rachael and Arnan for your time contributing to this Q&A and webinar.

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